8:05PM GMT 20 Jan 2015
The Foreign Secretary’s comments came shortly before a human rights activist was jailed for an “insulting tweet”
The Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, has praised improvements in Bahrain’s human rights record, shortly before the Gulf state jailed its most prominent human rights activist for six months for an “insulting tweet”.
Mr Hammond defended the government’s decision to open a naval base in Bahrain to the House of Commons.
“It is a country which is travelling in the right direction,” he said. “It is making significant reform.
“The crown prince who is charged with this agenda is directly engaged and has made significant progress even over the last few months.”
However, shortly afterwards Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, said he had been handed a six-month jail sentence for “offending government institutions”. He remains on bail pending appeal.
He was charged after he tweeted that former members of the Bahrain military had defected to serve with Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. ““Many #Bahrain men who joined #terrorism & #ISIS came from security institutions and those institutions were the first ideological incubator,” he wrote.
He was arrested after returning from a trip to Europe, where he addressed the human rights subcommittee of the European Parliament, and attended the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, and campaigners said the charges were an attempt to punish him for embarrassing the kingdom abroad.
Britain has strongly backed Bahrain despite a crackdown on protests in 2011. Last month Mr Hammond announced a new joint venture to expand a facility the Royal Navy enjoys for warships patrolling the Gulf there to a full base, to be paid for by Bahrain, which would be large enough to moor Britain’s new aircraft carriers.
The decision was met with protests by members of the country’s Shia majority. Mr Rajab described it to The Telegraph as an example of Britain’s complicity in Bahrain’s human rights crackdown.
“We have been struggling for many years and the British government has always taken the side of the oppressive regime and all the dictators in the Gulf region,” he said then.
On Monday, the authorities also said Ali Salman, the head of the main opposition party, Al-Wefaq, would face trial on charges of promoting the violent overthrow of Bahrain’s political system.
Mr Salman has always said he supports peaceful change to a constitutional monarchy, but the authorities see him as part of a wider, Iranian-backed plot to oust them.
Mr Hammond said he was aware that Bahrain still had “quite a long way to go” in its attempts to improve its democratic and human rights record.
“We continually remind the Bahrainis of their commitment and how much further they have to go,” he said. “But I think we should support them to get there.”
He was speaking in reply to Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour MP, who asked why Britain continued to sell arms to the country.
“Our reward is to provide yet more arms and a British military base there,” he said. “Shouldn’t we really engage with them on solving the human rights issues and freeing the opposition leader rather than this hands-off approach on arms sales?”
Amnesty International condemned Mr Hammond’s defence.
“It’s hard to see what’s right about a direction of travel which is leading to the jailing of government critics, the holding of prisoners of conscience and persistent reports of torture in detention,” said Allan Hogarth, its head of policy and government affairs.
“Mr Hammond needs to urgently revise his rose-tinted view of Bahrain.”